We establish a rule within one minute of meeting each other – we’re not going to mention the ‘M’ word. My interviewee, Zoha Rahman, is a British-Pakistani actor that recently shot into the public consciousness with a supporting role in this year’s Spider-Man: Far From Home. And while Spidey was out battling the Elementals, Zoha, a former student of SOAS, was fighting for Muslim representation in mainstream movies, becoming the first actor to wear a hijab in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Zoha doesn’t wear one in real life, and there’s a feeling in the room that perhaps she’s spent too much time talking about the hijab and her Muslim heritage – especially when Zoha has much else to talk about when it comes to identity. “I’m just an actor,” Zoha affirms in her surprisingly American accent. “I’m constantly referred to as a ‘‘brown, Muslim, female actor”. Why limit my creativity to those attributes? Why limit my opportunities before I’m even in the room?”
Acting isn’t the only industry where those from a BAME background are struggling, but it’s one where the difficulties are obvious. Even in 2019, actors of South Asian descent can be – and often are – pigeon-holed. Despite her role in Spider-Man seemingly blazing a trail, things are not necessarily getting easier for her.
“It feels like agents look for these specific attributes when they’re casting before they look in my direction,” she claims. “Spider-Man was great. But I’m still getting auditions for ‘terrorist’s wife’, or ‘Afghani refugee’, or ‘Indian girl #2’. I’d prefer a role that doesn’t require a specific identity.”
Zoha has gone on record to talk about how actors such as herself are stuck in stereotypes; the ‘three Ts’, as Zoha calls them, of the techie, the terrorist, and the taxi driver. It takes me all of three seconds to think of multiple examples where a South Asian actor has played these roles. She refers me to ‘The Good Immigrant’, an anthology of essays by aspiring BAME artists – and specifically a story by the actor and rapper Riz Ahmed.
“Riz writes about three stages; first, you’ve got the three Ts. Then you’ve got the second stage,” Zoha continues. “The Asian struggling with their identity, their religion, or ‘brownness’ – the Muslim taking off their hijab, for example, or the Hindu refusing to go along with an arranged marriage.”
“The final stage is when the character is not influenced by the colour of the skin; where the character exists irrespective of that.” There’s actually no shortage of South Asian actors in the West, but how many actually make it to stage 3? “Riz Ahmed is one, Mindy Kaling is another. But most of us get stuck in stage 1 or 2.”
There are naturally going to be some exceptions to this rule, but why does Zoha think these roadblocks exist? “I think we need to speak to directors, writers, and ask for a new angle. I think our narratives are restricted because there aren’t enough of us in these positions. Mindy is making a difference because she’s in a role like that, behind the camera.”
It’s starting to feel like a bit of a pattern – I ask a question, Zoha answers, and I question her answer. But it’s a valid question: why are there not enough South Asians behind the camera? And as keen as I was to avoid talking about subject matter that is typically linked to the South Asian career narrative, we were unable to avoid the inevitable. “South Asians are not encouraged by their parents to go down these routes. To make it even to where I am now, I ignored the advice my parents gave me; but I understand that there are not enough people that can do that, that can make the changes we want to see in the industry.”
Zoha’s repeatedly been on record saying that her parents initially advised her against going into acting, so I don’t want to dwell on that particular battle too long. I am, however, curious about its aftermath; when a South Asian goes against their parents’ wishes when choosing a vocation, is there a level of success they have to achieve for their decision to feel vindicated? To prove that you were right?
Happily, it seems as though Zoha’s relationship with her parents doesn’t leave room for animosity. “I’m not looking to prove myself to them, really. I would like them to express their appreciation that I do work hard, and that what I do is a ‘valid career’. I don’t want to be the person to say I told you so. I do this because I enjoy doing it.”
Zoha’s currently working on ‘83, a Hindi movie based on India’s success in the 1983 Cricket World Cup, starring Bollywood heavyweights Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone. It’s her third movie – and while she doesn’t believe she has anything to prove to her parents, ‘83 appears to be the movie that would do the trick if she did.
“When I told my Mum I’d be working on a movie with Deepika Padukone, she started saying ‘Oh, now you’ve made it! Now you’ve made it!’ I said, ‘Mum, I’ve worked with Samuel L Jackson, for God’s sake – with Jake Gyllenhaal!’ She just said, ‘No, no, it’s Deepika – now you’ve made it!’”
Of course, while she’s rubbing shoulders with household names, the main reason that Zoha’s giving me an interview is that she is a SOAS alum; she graduated with a “wasted law degree” – ‘my dad’s words’, she hastily adds – back in 2017. She had secured an offer to start a Master’s degree at Queen Mary to study Intellectual Property Law, but dropped out part way through that degree in order to focus on acting.
“I only chose that Master’s degree so I could work in the media!” Zoha laughs. “Two months in, I was struggling to invest the required amount of time in my studies and my career as an actor and model. My now-husband encouraged me to make a choice. The thought of not acting – of not being involved in some creative process – made me cry.
“So I decided to take a year out of study, before I dropped out. Now, two years later, I don’t see myself doing anything other than acting ever again. I feel a purpose when I’m by a camera.”
So what was it that convinced Zoha to study at SOAS? “I honestly feel that SOAS is where I found myself, it was where I embraced my identity,” Zoha begins. “Living in Pakistan meant everyone there shared the same identity. When I moved to the UK, I was surrounded by different people, I felt…out of place.”
Zoha was raised in Pakistan, and moved to the UK to study her A-Levels. She stands as an ambassador for her heritage now, but it’s not been the easiest ride getting to this point. “I had a Pakistani accent. I stood for student council at school, and submitted a picture of myself in traditional dress – it was the only suitable picture I had – and people made fun of it.
“I wasn’t making a statement by using that picture; but the comments I got made me think about identity in a different way. I ran away from mine, I went back into my shell. That’s when I unconsciously developed an American accent to speak with – to break these stereotypes of me.”
It’s a narrative that can be quite prevalent amongst first- and second-generation South Asians. When you’re taught that you need to acclimatise to the West – may that be through chasing the American dream, or by speaking English, considered by many in South Asia to be a sign of class and education – it’s easy to turn your back on your roots. For this writer, who has experienced this, working at SOAS has brought about a dramatic reversal of this sentiment. It appears to have been similar for Zoha.
“I chose to study at SOAS because I felt comfortable here. I dug into the curriculum, and I saw that SOAS offered South Asian Law, Hindu Law, Islamic Law. I saw that Dr. Ambedkar was part of the syllabus, I saw that the university was making efforts to decolonise its curriculum. I held offers elsewhere, and I made a last-minute decision to study at SOAS instead.
“Coming to SOAS, I met so many people who were fascinated by my identity; who were actually better educated about my identity than I was. I was not an outsider – or, actually, I was, but in a positive way. I learned what feminism meant on a deeper level than ever before.”
I really want to end the interview with a question that Zoha’s not been asked in the press she’s done this year. Since we both broke our agreement within the first two paragraphs, I decide to ask about a different ‘M’ word – the beloved Maggi noodles she refers to in her bios on the internet. “What’s your favourite flavour?”, I ask. She laughs. “I’ll tell you my secret. Try this – mix the chicken and chatpata flavours together.” Zoha smiles. “Thank me later.”
Photo credit: Livia Cesa